Monday, December 23, 2013

OUT OF THE FURNACE Is Badass, Almost-Great


- I was quite impressed with director Scott Cooper's first film, Crazy Heart. Not only did that film get the deserving Jeff Bridges his first Oscar, but it also signaled the arrival of a potentially great new director in Cooper. Now, Cooper's second film, OUT OF THE FURNACE has arrived after a lengthy wait, and again, Cooper emphasizes atmosphere. OUT OF THE FURNACE is a film that positively radiates a dingy, blue-collar, steel-town vibe. It's appropriate, since the film is, on one level, a gritty crime-caper. But on another level, it's an American tale about a community that's come upon hard times, and the extremes to which they have to go to scrape by. The movie looks amazing, and it's got an all-star cast that's almost unbelievably stacked with big names. I think it's got all the ingredients for greatness, but it falls just short due to a plot that feels a little directionless at times. Still, the sheer thrill of seeing a dream-team of badasses like Christian Bale, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Shepard go at it (plus a spark-plug performance from Casey Affleck), makes this well worth checking out.

The film is the story of a Rust Belt community that has fallen on hard times. It's also the story of two brothers, Russell (Bale) and Rodney (Affleck), each in very different places. Russell, the older brother, works in a steel mill, a tough, dangerous, and low-paying job that is, nonetheless, an honest day's work - something that Russell takes pride in. Rodney is a recently-returned-from-active-duty veteran, and he's struggling to re-acclimate to civilian life. Instead of taking a job at the mill with his brother, he's fallen in with a small-time crime kingpin, John Petty (Dafoe), who runs a gambling ring centered around underground fighting matches. Rodney, likely suffering from some serious PTSD, seems compelled to be a part of the fights and essentially get beat up (often taking dives) for money. However, Rodney starts getting in way over his head when Petty hooks him up with a psycho drug-dealer named Harlan (Harrelson), who also runs his own fighting circuit. Meanwhile, Russell, normally the more level-headed of the brothers, ends up in jail after a drunk-driving incident. He emerges to find his brother missing - gone off to work for Harlan and never heard from again. And so, Russell, despite repeated warnings from an overly-cautious sheriff (Whitaker), goes off on a shotgun-toting mission to find and save his baby brother.

If that sounds like one hell of a badass premise for a movie ... well, it is. The issue is just that the movie sets all of this up in a somewhat meandering, roundabout manner. It takes a long time to get to the point where Affleck and Harrelson finally meet, and that means that the film's final act feels a little rushed and underwhelming - lacking that big, final, exclamation point that I was hoping for.

That said though - there really are some phenomenal moments that are part of the movie's slow-but-steady build-up to it's endgame. The combination of gritty, well-drawn characters and all-star actors is a potent one. In fact, the film's opening scene - showing just how mean and nasty Harrelson's Harlan is - is a jaw-dropper. Harrelson has played his share of scary mother$%^#'ers, but this is right up there as one of his meanest, scariest, most unhinged roles to date. Similarly jaw-dropping are the first few big scenes for Casey Affleck's Rodney. Affleck gives us a hell of a performance in this one - he really drives home the fact that this guy - who is still outwardly a quiet, unassuming kid - now has a monster inside of him, and has demons that he can't fully control. Bale is quietly badass and intense, and there's also an interesting (though sort of left-field) love triangle with him, Zoe Saldana, and Whitaker (she leaves Bale for Whitaker after he's arrested). Whitaker, who seems to oddly be doing a riff on Bale's Batman voice as the gruff sheriff, is also quite good, while Saldana doesn't get a ton to do. Dafoe is strange, because he walks the line here of doing full-on "insane Willem Dafoe" in this film, which is always entertaining, but doesn't fully match the tone that Cooper is going for. But hey, if one character in the film was just going to be weird as hell, it might as well be the slick small-town crime boss who runs an illegal fight-club gambling operation. Oh, I've also got to mention Sam Shepard as Bale and Affleck's super-badass old uncle. As you might expect, he pretty much rules it for every moment he's on screen (and what a year he's had, between this and Mud).

Cooper makes all of the drama and grit extremely operatic and absorbing. There's a hard-boiled, grimy tone to the film that reminded me of a feature-length episode of Justified - and that's not at all a bad thing. Still, despite how much works here, there does seem to be a slight contrast between the film's sprawling, semi-epic plotline and it's tone. It feels like there's a more streamlined, more ultimately satisfying version of this movie somewhere beneath, that ends up being weighted down by a lot of extra padding. Cooper ends up stuffing a sprawling family drama on top of a gritty revenge flick, and the result is a movie that doesn't quite nail either as effectively as it might have.

OUT OF THE FURNACE remains, however, a dark, violent, immensely entertaining film, that looks great and has one of the best and most badass casts of any movie this year. Bale, Affleck, and Harrelson in particular bring their A-games, and Cooper shows that he is still very much a director to watch.

My Grade: B+

No comments: